The Chimney Sheep's story
While working as a bat ecologist I became aware of how many open chimneys there are. Being an environmentalist I thought this was a wicked waste of energy. I was also aware of sheep wool being virtually a waste product, and knew it was used as an insulation material. I developed a prototype out of felt and kitchen utensils, and the Chimney Sheep was born! I developed it into a marketable product and launched in 2012.
Since then I've sold 160,000 units and have expanded the business to sell a wide range of environmentally friendly products. I've set up a Community Interest Company called Buy Land Plant Trees, with 20% of the profits from Chimney Sheep going to this. So far I've purchased 180 acres and planted 35,000 trees, with plans to plant a great many more.
Useful learnings from The Chimney Sheep
I wasn't confident in my own ability to develop a product and bring it to market, but had confidence that it was a good idea and had something to offer the energy saving industry. The product range has grown; the company has grown, and my ability to manage the growth has developed in tandem. I've had help and support along the way, but a lot of the problems and challenges I've overcome myself.
My research was to look in as many properties as possible to see how many open chimneys there were. So my advice would be to definitely find out what the demand is likely to be if you’re going to apply for a patent it’s invalidated if the idea is already “out there”. I had a business advisor who told me I should stand outside Sainsbury’s and ask customers if they would be interested in a chimney blocker, however this would have invalidated any patent claim. The most important thing is to see if there is anything similar already on the market. What is the competition? And not necessarily a similar concept or product, but something else that already fulfils the requirements of your future customers. How does your price compare with the competition? Consider the end cost of your product or service right from the outset and through the design stage.
Marketing is really important. You can be so wrapped up in what you’re doing, it feels like everyone else should know about it too, but you need to keep telling people about it. Social media is a way of doing this but you can get drowned out by all the other information and ads. You can write articles and try to get into publications. And keep trying! Paid ads in publications tend to absorb a lot of money with poor results in my own experience. Use Google Analytics and think about who your customers are and how to reach them.
Money is difficult. I was lucky enough to get some grants but it’s always difficult when starting out. Look hard for grants though, as there are funding options out there. Look for creative ways of borrowing money, eg the rates from PayPal and Amazon are better than Funding Circle for example.
Enter awards when you’re starting out! It’s easier to win in new business / product categories than when you’re a bit more established and have a bigger field of competition. Winning awards make you feel better about all the work you’ve put into it, and you can refer to your business or product as award winning. Use it in your marketing and tell your staff that they are members of an award-winning team.
The Chimney Sheep's metrics
Total amount of CO2 saved.
Money saved per year.